Thursday, March 31, 2011

Garden Diary: That Black & White Time of Year

... a bit of navel gazing  ...

This time of year the garden is almost totally bare, the grasses burned and the remnants of perennials either chopped to mulch or hauled off to the compost heap. This is the time to savor the emptiness of the garden ... the mysterious recession of life back into the earth.

The garden in early spring, after burning and cutting has removed all evidence of the masses of herbaceous perennials and grasses.

Over the next three months, hundreds of grasses and perennials will begin their inexorable rise into the light and, by midsummer ...

For contrast ... same view last August.

 ... will fill this space with a mounting sea of vegetation.

Taking Stock
This is also a good time to reassess the underlying structure of the garden. Using black and white makes it easier to do this.

In my effort to add structure, to create a garden for the "off season," to differentiate the garden from the surrounding woods, have things gotten a little too busy? Does the structure interfere with the “savoring of emptiness”?

Over the past year, paving all the paths with gravel has had a dramatic visual effect, giving them a heft and substance they lacked before, with bands of gray that bring a sense of motion, almost like a network of roadways, to this little field in the woods, punching up the shapes and curves, even foreshortening distances, making the garden appear shallower than in past years. Is it too busy? I don’t think so, not yet—not if I remember to keep a light hand. (Of course, much of this is invisible, or can be seen only in partial glimpses when the plants return, so the garden's structure, which can be seen like a picture now, can only be sensed as a journey in the summer, when you have to walk through it to understand how it's made.)

But the paths do work. They are a practical solution for walking over the very wet land, and their curved shapes, solidity, and width keep the naturalistic wildness-to-come within bounds. They provide access, make it possible to explore with ease, and give a sense of boundary and space that defines the planted areas and keeps them from becoming overwhelming.

So on balance, I think this is an improvement. I can work to refine it.

The meandering armature of the garden--the long, narrow pond in the lower right, the linear stone planting bed in the middle distance, and the curved sitting area in the upper right--suggests a series of S-curves, like a flowing stream.

Sense of Place
My starting point has always been sense of place ... to remember this is a garden for a modernist house in the woods ... a quite place in the gently rolling hills above the Delaware River, where centuries of rain and erosion have carved a modest landscape of subtle curves and slopes. I've wanted to take my queue from the natural processes that shaped this land ... thus the native stone walls, the curving gravel paths, the naturalistic wildness of the plantings, the clay pond.

This focus on sense of place is also the reason for another, more abstract feature that overlays the network of paths. This is the curvy diagonal running from the lower right to the upper left in the image above (pond, raised stone planting bed, paved sitting area). We have an unusual geology in this part of New Jersey, characterized by masses of fractured argillite bedrock just under the surface. When it rains, the water can’t percolate into the soil, so flows in copious flood across the land surface. It's a little like living in the midst of a shallow creek bed. I've noted before that my garden resembles a river delta, where the overland flow of water follows natural channels that form subtle flow patterns. This phenomenon is a defining feature of this land. (An Irish neighbor has a small sign in Gaelic in front of his house. When I asked it's meaning, he said, "Land of soggy feet"!)

I’m using the word armature in the sense of a framework as used by a sculptor to support a figure being modeled. Or rather I’m using that definition as a metaphor, a touchstone image. But I'm not at all sure it works, at least not yet.

My original intent was to develop structure that would give the garden more winter interest, as well as a structural meaning that makes the delta metaphor integral to the garden's design. The meandering diagonal does help carry the eye back to the corner of the garden, where a sitting area with bench and hydrangeas is gradually evolving. Behind this corner I’ve planted two hornbeam hedges meeting at right angles, so this will indeed be a “corner” with some oomph (if the hedge grows, that is). That hedge may be the answer to making this concept work as intended. I also may want to shape the existing plantings to direct the eye toward this diagonal line of flow. Time will tell.

So I continue fiddling, not yet sure it will turn out as I want, waiting for the hedge to grow.

But isn’t that a large part of what gardening is about? I’ve made the plan and I’m executing it. I remind myself the pleasure is in the doing, and I’ll continue to make changes to better define this armature, integrate its parts, try to make it “read” as a meaningful statement about this place.

If I had my preferences, and cost were no object, all this would be a single thing, probably a series of interconnected pools moving off into the distance.  But the cost would be too high, and I'm not about to start again at this stage (and age).

Last fall, to better integrate the pond and raised stone bed, I started adding stone around the pond (above). It will be wider than shown here, but irregular and intermittent, suggesting a natural deposit of the native argillite, and visually wedding the pond more closely to the raised stone planting bed to its left.

The new sitting area farther out needs help too. It’s in the midst of large, blousy plantings, and needs some breathing room (it’s so bare out there now, you have to use your imagination). Some of the larger plants may need to be moved, allowing the eye to travel a bit. I'm thinking of adding low plant groupings about the perimeter of this area, to make it more “planty” so it feels like a natural feature, not some abstract idea imposed on the landscape.

A Walk Around
So down into the garden to see how it looks at ground level (below). Entering the garden from the front of the house, you move through this woodland garden before entering the open "prairie" space. The path on the right is the "private" entrance from the gravel terrace overlooking the garden; the one on the right brings you from the front entry.

Entering from the woodland garden at the side of the house, two paths start the visual flow.

The circling paths create a sense of flow, of movement, pulling you along and around even when there’s not much to see other than empty landscape.

The smaller path from the house passes on the opposite side of the pond then enters the main cross pathway in the mid-distance.

The curve of the major crossing follows a change in elevation. My thought was to use the natural contour of the land to shape the path.

If things go as planned, the box woods in the center will merge into a single undulating mass.

Looking back from the opposite side (below), the new sitting out area is visible on the left. It was added when the garden was in full growth. In this naked state, I can see it needs tweaking ... more gravel to widen it, low plantings around the perimeter to give it its own sense of place, addition of a narrow linking path on the right to complete the circle it wants to make with the existing path. I do want to keep the entrances to this area narrow, allowing room for only one person to pass at a time. This will be a private space when the garden is growing at full tilt, and access needs to be controlled.

Continuing around to the link to the main path on the far side of the garden (below), it's clear I need a similar link at the right end. At first, I wanted to prevent passage through this area to give it a greater sense of privacy. Now I find the desire to walk through irresistible. The message is clear.

The Wave Hill chairs are out of place here ... too prominent ... so I'll use them on the periphery of the garden, perhaps near the pond, and add simple low benches here.

The sitting area was imposed on the exiting garden, so some
larger plants will have to move to give it breathing room.

Rounding the back side of the garden, a wall of Arborvitae and some isolated evergreen specimens give some interest (mainly bringing some green into the brown field) ...

... but the stars at this bare time of year are the Japanese fantail willows (Salix sachhalinensis 'Sekka'), which I’m pruning into small trees with two or three trunks each (yes, some spring pruning is needed about now). These are beautifully shaped plants with a very Japanese aesthetic, at least to my eye, and I find they can carry the garden almost alone until the perennials reemerge. Later in the season they bear large fuzzy catkins heavy with yellow pollen. Even in the summer, their large, irregular shapes enhance the Silphiums, Eupatoriums, and other tall perennials and grasses.

The Japanese fantail willows are a prominent feature of early spring. These need pruning to reveal their beautiful shapes and, of course, much of their charm is their early spring color, which is lost here.

I've also begun to add bulbs though none are visible here. Daffodils and crocus survive the wet conditions well, and camassias should, though the few I've tried haven't been much of a success. There are actually daffodils in this view, but they haven't emerged yet.

So I have quite a lot of work to do this season, as I'm sure will continue to be the case with every coming year. The key will be in knowing when to stop.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Amalia Robredo: New Directions in South America

Delicate and graceful Eryngium elegans, one of the many Eryngiums native to La Pasionaria, Amalia Robredo's naturalistic landscape garden on the coast of Uruguay.

Recently reading Tovah Martin’s article on New York’s High Line in Horticulture magazine, I did a double take when I read this: “Some may argue that it’s too wild and free to be a real garden...” I don’t know why I continue to be surprised when reminded how ubiquitous is this conventional view of gardens. I don't think Tovah Martin intended to say the High Line is not a garden—in fact, I'm sure she meant the opposite—but she did give voice to an opinion among the general public that is much too common—and wrong to my mind.

View across a prairie of Cortaderia selloana to the monte and house crowning the hill.

Last fall, when a visiting friend commented that my garden wasn’t really a garden, that it was, in fact, too wild and naturalistic to be a garden, I was surprised enough to write a post on often overly conventional, and complacent, expectations of gardens. I felt a bond with a kindred spirit when Amalia Robredo, a landscape and garden designer (paisajista) in Uruguay, told me about her reaction to the post. “I couldn’t stop laughing,” she wrote, “as I felt so much the same! It happens to me ALL the time.”

So this conventional view of gardens appears to be multicultural, to say the least!

Built of local stone, the house rises from the monte of native trees, shrubs and other successional vegetation, suggesting stone fortresses that lined the coast in early colonial times.

Amalia Robredo’s Garden: La Pasionaria

All of this is preface to the story of my recent visit to Amalia Robredo’s landscape garden, La Pasionaria, in Uruguay, a large, 5 hectare—more than 12 acre—garden of prairies, meadows, and native dwarf shrub and small-tree woodland called the "Monte." The monte is a signature feature of the landscape in this part of Uruguay and, though now protected by law, it continues to be endangered by farming, commercial development, and simple ignorance of its important ecological functions.

As Amalia explains it, the monte is an association of trees and shrubs that has evolved over hundreds of years. In the sandy soil of the Uruguayan coast, grasses first take root, protecting the soil from erosion and gradually building up organic matter. As the soil becomes more fertile, new pioneer plants take root, these are replaced in turn by new generations of plants as soil conditions improve, gradually leading to formation of the monte, the climax stage of vegetation in this coastal area.

Amalia's garden sets the standard for preservation of the monte, and it demonstrates a highly successful, relatively easily maintained, and beautiful solution to preserving this aspect of the area's culture and ecological heritage.

This is highly naturalistic garden, unlike the more traditional gardens ("yards") most North Americans expect, and I know from personal experience that some if not many U.S. gardeners may well question whether this garden—or the High Line, or my own garden, for that matter—is a “real” garden. I raise this point here simply because Amalia says she hears the same comment "all the time." In both cases, in North America and in South America, the comment is heard from those who come from cultures that value other kinds of gardens (small gardens, formal gardens, gardens with lawns and flower borders, gardens with fountains and elaborate ornamentation, you make your own list...), or from those who are simply not aware of the variety the word "garden" can encompass.

In early February, I traveled with my partner Phil and several friends to Argentina and Uruguay. I had read about Amalia and her work in Uruguay on Noel Kingsbury’s blog over two years ago when traveling with friends to Argentina on a previous visit. At that time, I hadn’t been able to find any information on gardens there, so I sent an email to Amalia—a shot in the dark, just to see if she would help me. I was amazed to get not just an answer, but to receive a generous offer to help in any way. So Amalia acted as a kind of “cyber tour guide,” answering my questions, and suggesting areas I might want to visit.

The entrance is designed as a traditional, culturally appropriate structure that might be found on a
rural estancia. There is whole-hearted welcome, but no room for grandeur or ostentation here.

An Invitation to Visit Uruguay

Last summer, Amalia and I had been in touch for over two years when I mentioned to her that the same group of friends and I were planning a return trip to Argentina. She encouraged us to visit her part of Uruguay (close to Buenos Aires), near the small, and now very trendy village of Jose Ignacio. She remained undaunted when I told her we would be seven. She promised a time not to be forgotten, and she certainly delivered in spades, with long visit to her house and garden, a walking tour, introductions to her children and her husband, and an al fresco lunch in the garden for eight, in the shade of the monte surrounding her house.

Lunch in the shade and coolness of the monte.
She had much to show us, other gardens and extraordinary landscapes, among then a garden designed by the Chilean designer Juan Grimm, a beach covered by thousands of geophytes in bloom, and two striking landscapes associated with her uncle (more about these at another time).

Amalia named her garden La Pasionaria, for the Passion flower, a plant native to the area, and passion is an appropriate word for her depth of feeling for this landscape, its history, culture, and its botanical heritage. With her work, Amalia is breaking new ground in South America, where there has been little interest in naturalistic gardening using native plants. Most public gardens, and many private ones, are still heavily influenced by the 19th century Beaux Arts public gardens and traditions inherited from Europe—with, of course, some major exceptions; Roberto Burle Marx in Brazil, for example. There is a nascent movement, but this kind of garden isn't widely appreciated, or understood.

Only a few minutes into a walking tour of the garden, Amalia and I were excitedly speaking in botanical Latin, much to the consternation of my traveling companions. Amalia had sent me information in advance—references, photos, PowerPoint presentations—so I was already familiar with some of the plants native to her area of Uruguay, and was able to recognize many plants—Colletia paradoxa, Eryngium pandanafolium, Eryngium  eburneum, Eryngium sanguisorba, even some genera familiar to a visitor from the northern hemisphere such as vernonia and eupatorium. But there were quite a few new “mystery” plants to be seen.

Colletia paradoxa is a pioneer plant, part of the plant succession that prepares the way for development of the monte. Even though we visited at the end of a summer of drought, an amazing variety of native plant life was evident.

I describe this background because Amalia’s hospitality and generosity were very much a part of our experience of the garden. That passion extends far beyond just her garden. Amalia is working with others throughout the academic and nursery community in Uruguay as well as other South American countries to identify native plants with potential for garden use, to trial promising cultivars, and to help move them into commercial production. In Uruguay there is no tradition of using native plants in gardens, in fact, no established recognition of native plants as having value in a garden. Many haven't even been identified. Noel Kingsbury has been helpful, and has introduced her to others, including Piet Oudolf in the Netherlands and Cassian Schmidt of Hermannshof in Germany, who also have an intense interest in finding new, garden worthy plants, and putting them to use in sustainable, low maintenance gardens. Here, Amalia is breaking new ground. She has even sent seed of grasses to Neil Lucas in England for trialing at Knoll Gardens.

Andropogon lindmanii, a native grass, in bloom.

Theoretical, Cultural and Aesthetic Concerns

To better understand why this garden is an important one, it might be helpful to look more closely at some of its spatial, horticultural, ecological, cultural and aesthetic attributes. Amalia's is a garden of contrasts, of light and shade, wind and stillness, wide views across to the ocean and intimate spaces near the house, of rounded, dome-like shapes—of the monte and rounded masses of various Baccharis species—contrasting with the verticals of Cereus uruguayensis, the spear-like flower spikes of Cortaderia selloana, and tall Eryngium pandanafolium (some of these plants aren't likely to be familiar to you, but there are photos below).

The verticals of Cereus uruguayensis contrast with the rounded forms of the monte.

Another powerful vertical, Eryngium pandanafolium, the largest of
several highly decorative eryngiums native to this part of Uruguay.
It can grow to eight or ten feet.

Eryngium eburneum, another native eryngium.

This is a landscape garden. It uses space, openness to the surrounding environment, lack of boundaries, undulating topography, easily differentiated landscape features (areas of trees and shrubs, meadows, water) to suggest a narrative of a idealized farm anchored in a particular place and a particular culture—and to suggest a journey, one that pulls you inward to increasing levels of detail.

View to the ocean from the edge of the monte.

Across the lake.
As shown on the drawing below, you enter opposite the house, and travel along a road winding in a long curve around the periphery of the property ...

... a drive (or walk) that provides constantly changing views of  the landscape—intermittently revealing then hiding the lake and its wetland plantings, a prairie of species Cortaderia selloana adjacent to the road, across the lake a Baccharis prairie in the mid distance, behind that a lawn then more prairies and meadows—these are in essence very large garden "rooms"—and in the distance a view of the house, built of local stone, thrusting mysteriously up from the monte. The entrance journey ends as you arrive at the residence opposite the entrance to the property.

The entrance drive provides changing views of the 12 acre garden of prairie, meadow, and monte.
This is a complex landscape, more complex than it first appears, and it could easily have become a formless mass of conflicting elements in less skillful hands. Instead, we see  a design done with elegant restraint, using almost exclusively a palate of plants native to the sandy monte community (Monte psamofilo), relying on historically and culturally appropriate features ...

Reclaimed rusted wrought iron embellished by a
planting of Paspalum quadrifarium and Paspalum plicatulum.
... such as stone walls, antique wooden doors, restrained use of old ornamental ironwork, gravel drives and paths—for the garden's structural elements.

I use the word “elegant” in the way a physicist would describe a theory that accounts for many complex phenomena in the simplest way possible as an elegant theory. Amalia’s elegant and refined composition is successful as much for what she left out as for what she put in. It is a restrained and subtle garden. She has used a very light hand, carefully editing preexisting parts of the landscape. Even where major new features have been created—the house and the whole residential complex, a large lake, massive stone walls and gates separating the residential and utility areas from the wider landscape—they look as if they always existed.

The garden entices the visitor by drawing the eye to nearby plant textures and shapes, then carries the view to the forms, shapes, colors and textures of the distant landscape. This is especially evident in the two images at the top of this post—in the close-up view of Eryngium elegans and the landscape view across to the monte and the house.

Near the end of the entrance drive, a tall stone wall and heavy wooden gates announce your arrival at the house and its immediate precincts ...

The entrance to Courtyard, residence, and utility areas is marked by heavy wooden gates and stone walls that look as if they might be centuries old, but they are new. Such garden structures are simple and culturally appropriate.

... where the garden is realized on a smaller scale, incorporating areas for recreation, pleasure, and utility in an ordered counterpoint of stone, water, light, shade, and ornamental ironwork—all carefully planned but with a relaxed. informal feeling.

The Courtyard
In the Courtyard is an area of domestic garden borders for trialing various native plants in a controlled environment ... below is Pterocaulon balansae, which promises to be an attractive vertical accent plant.

Pterocaulon balansae
  ... and below, my favorite new plant discovery, the graceful, airy Eryngium elegans ...

Eryngium elegans

Eupatorium macrocephalum flowering in the trial border.

 The Courtyard is quite large. Here, in a lighthearted moment that captures something of the spirit of her garden, Amalia is playfully pointing to a grasshopper on a Spartina ciliata ...

... and the grasshopper ...

 The Courtyard also makes room for parking and garages, a stable for horses, a playground for the children, and on the other side of an inner wall, through an ancient door salvaged from a prison in Montevideo,  a "summer kitchen," pool and lounging area, and a dining area—all are efficiently and unobtrusively organized within the shelter of the monte.

An old wagon-mounted carriage at the entrance
to the children's play ground.
Lounging area beside the pool.
Outside the monte is all sun, light, air, distant views of the blue ocean; inside is shade, shelter and privacy. Our walk through the garden took us on a journey through shaded monte, sunny prairie and meadow, elevated prospects with ocean views, sheltered low areas, the lake and wetland plantings, as we moved away from, then back toward the house in a great circle

Even the monte has its own unique vegetation adapted to more protected, fertile and shady conditions. Amalia has made paths through the monte so you can walk in seclusion, observing the different plant communities that live in the shade, such as these ferns ...

Blechnum australe ssp. auriculatum.

... in other parts of the monte openings to the wider landscape dramatize the contrast between dark and light, shade and bright sun.

At a maximum height of probably less than 20 feet, the monte has an intimate, human scale. You can stroll on shaded paths throughout the Coronillas (Scutia buxifolia) and Canelones (Rapanea laetevirens), the small trees that predominate in the monte, walking at full height, with ample room to move about. Amalia refers to the "green rooms" within the monte as giardinos segretos (secret gardens).

 Other paths reveal the sky while completely hiding the landscape outside the monte.

But a few steps can take you into a different world, the bright sunlit countryside ...

... and a stroll across the lawn, past meadows and prairies. According to Amalia's maintenance regime, a prairie is cut once a year or less, while a meadow is cut more than once a year, the frequency depending on the makeup of the plant community. Well timed cutting is necessary to allow desired grasses and flowering perennials to mature and seed, while preventing less desirable plants from getting out of hand.

The lack of boundaries gives the garden a tremendous feeling of openness and endless space, here enhanced by the downward slope of the terrain as it drops away toward the beach and the sea. The low, dry laid stone wall, called a pirca locally, divides the lawn from the meadows and prairies beyond.

Although it was extremely dry following the summer drought, the prairie still revealed a rich community of plants. Here you see the seed heads of Eryngium sanguisorba amid grasses ...

When I jumped over the pirca to take a closer look, Amalia quickly called me back. It seems snakes frequent the high grasses, so it's safer to keep to the closely cropped lawn when taking a sunlight stroll.

A walk down the gentle slope brings you to the lake and a pathway across the dam ...

Here, a view from the other side of the lake, magically capturing a piece of the blue sky.

Unlike gardens that start with a blank landscape (if there be such a thing; I doubt it), La Pasionaria does not impose a design on the land. The existing landscape, and in particular the monte, takes center stage.

Amalia's approach is one of enhancement and preservation and it is, I think, probably the garden of the future. In a world of increasingly scarce resources, lack of access to labor, financial constraints, water shortages, and environmental degradation, this kind of sustainable garden offers an attractive and viable solution to both resource constraints and preservation of the environment, genetic diversity, botanical heritage, and culture—one that can serve as a model for larger and more encompassing preservation efforts that will be needed—a way of maintaining beauty in an increasingly tarnished world.

(Selected photos courtesy of Amalia Robredo and Phillip Saperia. Drawing courtesy of Amalia Robredo.)

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Mystic in the garden

The circle of red logs was my first deliberate attempt to evoke ambiguity, uncertainty, questioning. Some immediately recognize it as a memorial to the Native Americans who lived in these hills, others simply see it as a red complement to the green of the garden, others don't know what to make of it. That's okay.

Marc Rosenquist's bronze sculpture, added this summer, serves a similar purpose, because its shape is ambiguous. What is it meant to depict, if it does depict anything? The ambiguity, I hope, moves the mind from a simple appreciation, to curiosity, at least, and perhaps toward questions of meaning.

Ultimately, I'm aiming for a sense of mystery, perhaps even for an encounter with the unknowable, or an echo of that. I realize this is not a very fashionable notion, except in limited circles, in current days.

Photos of bark paths by Ragnar Naess


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